Michael Hanscom admits it probably wasn’t the best idea. He thought the photo on his personal blog of Apple computers being offloaded at a Microsoft loading dock might get a couple of smirks from friends. He never imagined it would cost him his job.
That's precisely what he says happened, though. Hanscom has found several minutes of Web fame this week as the latest example of how bloggers’ blend of personal and professional can backfire. Hanscom, who says he has kept an online journal since 1998, worked in Microsoft’s copy shop, taking printing and publishing orders from employees at the software giant’s headquarters in Redmond, Wash. (MSNBC is a Microsoft-NBC joint venture.)
On Monday, Hanscom’s manager called him in and showed him an Oct. 23 post that featured a photo of stacked boxes of Apple Macintosh G5 computers under the title, “Even Microsoft wants G5s,” noted he had seen them on the loading dock of the building where he worked and remarked that a couple had fallen off their palettes. The close-cropped photograph reveals little more than a delivery truck and the pile of computers on a loading dock. Though Microsoft remains a target of derision for many Mac users, the company remains a major producer of software for Apple systems.
But the entry still raised hackles with Microsoft security officials, he says, who told his manager they couldn’t ask him to remove the post but instead wanted him off Microsoft premises. “I was told they saw it as a security violation,” says Hanscom, a longtime Mac fan who says he was amused to see Microsoft getting the machines. “I think they might have seen it as derogatory.”
Technically, Microsoft didn’t fire Hanscom. The 30-year-old has worked for a temp firm, Todays Staffing, since he moved to Seattle from Anchorage in the summer of 2001 — mostly on contracts for Xerox, which runs Microsoft’s copy service. The Microsoft gig was Hanscom’s second posting with Xerox and he says he saw no hints that anyone was unhappy with his work. “My manager had nothing but good things to say,” Hanscom recalls. Even after he had Hanscom escorted off campus, “he was hoping to help me find something else.”
Microsoft would not comment on Hanscom’s dismissal. Spokeswoman Stacy Drake McCredy said the company did not discuss personnel or security matters.
Potential for conflict
The public nature of bloggers’ musings frequently clash with their jobs. Some have been fired for their posts — and many highly visible professions, such as journalism, get special scrutiny. Earlier this month, ESPN fired columnist Gregg Easterbrook for some questionable comments in his blog, and a Houston Chronicle reporter was fired last year, while CNN and the Hartford Courant have asked staffers to shut down their journals.
Many bloggers simply opt to keep their entries anonymous to avoid scrutiny from managers and co-workers.
Yet Microsoft’s high-tech campus flourishes with bloggers, so much so that the company notes the existence of an independent Web page that has collected links of employees’ blogs. And Microsoft evangelist Robert Scoble uses blogs to engage outsiders on the company’s development process. (His posts occasionally even offer a gracious word for Apple.)
“We do recognize that Web blogging is a legitimate form of communication,” McCredy says. “A number of Microsoft employees have Web logs and we respect and support their decision to do so, as long as they abide by our confidentiality agreements.”
Hanscom’s experience, though, appears to be the first time Microsoft has taken action against someone on its campus for what was written in a blog. And his situation underscores companies’ emerging difficulties with workers’ blogs.
Offhand comments about work that once served as dinner-table conversation — often unflattering, but not confidential — now can be read around the world. If firms are discovering that blogging bans can backfire, it also can be difficult to establish fair guidance.
“The lines between public and private, and the lines between inside and outside a workplace, are absolutely being blurred,” says John Palfrey, executive director of Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for the Internet and Society. “What makes something effective as a blog is on the edge of what’s uncomfortable for an employer.”
In his online postings, Hanscom occasionally questioned some features of Microsoft products, but his predicament has puzzled many bloggers — along the way earning him a Slashdotting and a run at the top of Blogdex — perhaps because of the apparently minor nature of the infraction and perhaps because the David-and-Goliath tale resonates with the company’s many critics.
Hanscom says he’s never been directly contacted by Microsoft and hasn’t been given a full description of the alleged security breach. His manager asked him if his post resided on a Microsoft server (it didn’t) and Hanscom believes it was the accompanying text (“the print shop I work in, is in the same building as MS’s shipping and receiving”), not the photograph, that prompted his dismissal. He also offhandedly mentioned in a July post which building he worked in. But he openly discussed his blog with his manager and says he had no indication before Monday that it was a concern.
Though Hanscom says he was not told of Microsoft security guidelines and worked under Xerox regulations, he believes the post likely violated disclosure rules or concerns about photography on Microsoft’s campus. Microsoft says it requires all contractors to sign a confidentiality agreement. On the other hand, the loading dock Hanscom referenced is visible from a public road, as is much of the Microsoft campus.
“If they had just said, ‘You should not have done that, that’s a bad idea, take that down,’ I would’ve said OK,” he says. “I could certainly understand if I was taking pictures inside one of the buildings.”
In fact, because of his job handling company documents Hanscom frequently had access to confidential Microsoft information and was always careful not to discuss any of it. That sensitivity to disclosure even extended to the photograph he took, which he says deliberately excluded any employees or identifying features of the building. “I’ve read stories about people losing their job because of what they blogged, and I’ve generally tried to make sure it didn’t happen to me.”